Whatever Happened to the Transhumanists?

Whatever Happened to the Transhumanists?
Image: Gizmodo/Ociacia, Shutterstock

Gizmodo is 20 years old! In the summer of 2002, “The Gadgets Weblog” officially launched to cover all of your gadget weblogging needs. The last two decades have been a wild ride in technology, so we’re taking this opportunity to look back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools. We’ve come a long way since the days of TiVo, Napster, and Palm Pilots. Unfortunately, we’re still not old enough to drink.

Like so many others after 9/11, I felt spiritually and existentially lost. It’s hard to believe now, but I was a regular churchgoer at the time. Watching those planes smash into the World Trade Centre woke me from my extended cerebral slumber and I haven’t set foot in a church since, aside from the occasional wedding or baptism.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but that godawful day triggered an intrapersonal renaissance in which my passion for science and philosophy was resuscitated. My marriage didn’t survive this mental reboot and return to form, but it did lead me to some very positive places, resulting in my adoption of secular Buddhism, meditation, and a decade-long stint with vegetarianism. It also led me to futurism, and in particular a brand of futurism known as transhumanism.

Transhumanism made a lot of sense to me, as it seemed to represent the logical next step in our evolution, albeit an evolution guided by humans and not Darwinian selection. As a cultural and intellectual movement, transhumanism seeks to improve the human condition by developing, promoting, and disseminating technologies that significantly augment our cognitive, physical, and psychological capabilities. When I first stumbled upon the movement, the technological enablers of transhumanism were starting to come into focus: genomics, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. These tools carried the potential to radically transform our species, leading to humans with augmented intelligence and memory, unlimited lifespans, and entirely new physical and cognitive capabilities. And as a nascent Buddhist, it meant a lot to me that transhumanism held the potential to alleviate a considerable amount of suffering through the elimination of disease, infirmary, mental disorders, and the ravages of ageing.

The idea that humans would transition to a posthuman state seemed both inevitable and desirable, but, having an apparently functional brain, I immediately recognised the potential for tremendous harm. Wanting to avoid a Brave New World dystopia (perhaps vaingloriously), I decided to get directly involved in the transhumanist movement in hopes of steering it in the right direction. To that end, I launched my blog, Sentient Developments, joined the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+), co-founded the now-defunct Toronto Transhumanist Association, and served as the deputy editor of the transhumanist e-zine Betterhumans, also defunct. I also participated in the founding of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), on which I continue to serve as chairman of the board.

Indeed, it was also around this time in the early- to mid-2000s that I developed a passion for bioethics. This newfound fascination, along with my interest in futurist studies and outreach, gave rise to a dizzying number of opportunities. I gave talks at academic conferences, appeared regularly on radio and television, participated in public debates, and organised transhumanist-themed conferences, including TransVision 2004, which featured talks by Australian performance artist Stelarc, Canadian inventor and cyborg Steve Mann, and anti-ageing expert Aubrey de Grey.

The transhumanist movement had permeated nearly every aspect of my life, and I thought of little else. It also introduced me to an intriguing (and at times problematic) cast of characters, many of whom remain my colleagues and friends. The movement gathered steady momentum into the late 2000s and early 2010s, acquiring many new supporters and a healthy dose of detractors. Transhumanist memes, such as mind uploading, genetically modified babies, human cloning, and radical life extension, flirted with the mainstream. At least for a while.

Hardly a passing fad

The term “transhumanism” popped into existence during the 20th century, but the idea has been around for a lot longer than that.

The quest for immortality has always been a part of our history, and it probably always will be. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest written example, while the Fountain of Youth — the literal Fountain of Youth — was the obsession of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León.

Notions that humans could somehow be modified or enhanced appeared during the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, with French philosopher Denis Diderot arguing that humans might someday redesign themselves into a multitude of types “whose future and final organic structure it’s impossible to predict,” as he wrote in D’Alembert’s Dream. Diderot also thought it possible to revive the dead and imbue animals and machines with intelligence. Another French philosopher, Marquis de Condorcet, thought along similar lines, contemplating utopian societies, human perfectibility, and life extension.

The Russian cosmists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries foreshadowed modern transhumanism, as they ruminated on space travel, physical rejuvenation, immortality, and the possibility of bringing the dead back to life, the latter being a portend to cryonics — a staple of modern transhumanist thinking. From the 1920s through to the 1950s, thinkers such as British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, Irish scientist J. D. Bernal, and British biologist Julian Huxley (who popularised the term “transhumanism” in a 1957 essay) were openly advocating for such things as artificial wombs, human clones, cybernetic implants, biological enhancements, and space exploration.

Transhumanists, arise!

It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that a cohesive transhumanist movement emerged, a development largely brought about by — you guessed it — the internet.

“As with many small subcultures, the internet allowed transhumanists around the world to start communicating on email lists, and then websites and blogs,” James Hughes, a bioethicist, sociologist, and the executive director of the IEET, told me. “Almost all transhumanist culture takes place online. The 1990s and early 2000s were also relatively prosperous, at least for the Western countries where transhumanism grew, so the techno-optimism of transhumanism seemed more plausible.”

The internet most certainly gave rise to the vibrant transhumanist subculture, but the emergence of tantalising, impactful scientific and technological concepts is what gave the movement its substance. Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned animal, was born in 1996, and in the following year Garry Kasparov became the first chess grandmaster to lose to a supercomputer. The Human Genome Project finally released a complete human genome sequence in 2003, in a project that took 13 years to complete. The internet itself gave birth to a host of futuristic concepts, including online virtual worlds and the prospect of uploading one’s consciousness into a computer, but it also suggested a possible substrate for the Noösphere — a kind of global mind envisioned by the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Key cheerleaders contributed to the proliferation of far-flung futurist-minded ideas. Eric Drexler’s seminal book Engines of Creation (1986) demonstrated the startling potential for (and peril of) molecular nanotechnology, while the work of Hans Moravec and Kevin Warwick did the same for robotics and cybernetics, respectively. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, through his “law of accelerating returns” and fetishization of Moore’s Law, convinced many that a radical future was at hand; in his popular books, The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near (2005), Kurzweil predicted that human intelligence was on the cusp of merging with its technology. In his telling, this meant that we could expect a Technological Singularity (the emergence of greater-than-human artificial intelligence) by the mid-point of the 21st century (as an idea, the Singularity — another transhumanist staple — has been around since the 1960s and was formalized in a 1993 essay by futurist and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge). In 2006, an NSF-funded report, titled “Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society,” showed that the U.S. government was starting to pay attention to transhumanist ideas.

A vibrant grassroots transhumanist movement developed at the turn of the millennium. The Extropy Institute, founded by futurist Max More, and the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), along with its international charter groups, gave structure to what was, and still is, a wildly divergent set of ideas. A number of specialty groups with related interests also emerged, including: the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (now the Machine Intelligence Research Institute), the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology, the Foresight Institute, the Lifeboat Foundation, and many others. Interest in cryonics increased as well, with the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonics Institute receiving more attention than usual.

Society and culture got cyberpunked in a hurry, which naturally led people to think increasingly about the future. And with the Apollo era firmly in the rear view mirror, the public’s interest in space exploration waned. Bored of the space-centric 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, we increasingly turned our attention to movies about AI, cybernetics, and supercomputers, including Blade Runner, Akira, and The Matrix, many of which had a distinctive dystopian tinge.

With the transhumanist movement in full flight, the howls of outrage became louder — from critics within the conservative religious right through to those on the anti-technological left. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared transhumanism to be the world’s most dangerous idea, while bioethicist Leon Kass, a vocal critic of transhumanism, headed-up President George W. Bush’s bioethics council, which explicitly addressed medical interventions meant to enhance human capabilities and appearance. The bioethical battle lines of the 21st century, it appeared, were being drawn before our eyes.

This TIME cover blew my mind when it came out on February 21, 2011. (Image: Photo-illustration by Phillip Tolendo for TIME. Prop Styling by Donnie Myers.)This TIME cover blew my mind when it came out on February 21, 2011. (Image: Photo-illustration by Phillip Tolendo for TIME. Prop Styling by Donnie Myers.)

It was a golden era for transhumanism. Within a seemingly impossible short time, our ideas went from obscurity to tickling the zeitgeist. The moment that really did it for me was seeing the cover of TIME’s February 21, 2011, issue, featuring the headline, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” and cover art depicting a brain-jacked human head.

By 2012, my own efforts in this area had landed me a job as a contributing editor for Gizmodo, which served to expand my interest in science, futurism, and philosophy even further. I presented a talk at Moogfest in 2014 and had some futurist side hustles, serving as the advisor for National Geographic’s 2017 documentary-drama series, Year Million. Transhumanist themes permeated much of my work back then, whether at Gizmodo or later with Gizmodo, but less so with each passing year. These days I barely write about transhumanism, and my involvement in the movement barely registers. My focus has been on spaceflight and the ongoing commercialization of space, which continues to scratch my futurist itch.

“We are living in a partially transhuman world”

What was once a piercing roar has retreated to barely discernible background noise. Or at least that’s how it currently appears to me. For reasons that are both obvious and not obvious, explicit discussions of “transhumanism” and “transhumanists” have fallen by the wayside.

The reason we don’t talk about transhumanism as much as we used to is that much of it has become a bit normal — at least as far as the technology goes, as Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, told me.

“We live lives online using wearable devices (smartphones), aided by AI and intelligence augmentation, virtual reality is back again, gene therapy and RNA vaccines are a thing, massive satellite constellations are happening, drones are becoming important in warfare, trans[gender] rights are a big issue, and so on,” he said, adding: “We are living in a partially transhuman world.” At the same time, however, the transhumanist idea to “deliberately embrace the change and try to aim for such a future has not become mainstream,” Sandberg said. 

His point about transhumanism having a connection to trans-rights may come as a surprise, but the futurist linkage to LGBTQ+ issues goes far back, whether it be sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler envisioning queer families and greater gender fluidity or feminist Donna Haraway yearning to be a cyborg rather than a goddess. Transhumanists have long advocated for a broadening of sexual and gender diversity, along with the associated rights to bodily autonomy and the means to invoke that autonomy. In 2011, Martine Rothblatt, the billionaire transhumanist and transgender rights advocate, took it a step further when she said, “we cannot be surprised that transhumanism arises from the groins of transgenderism,” and that “we must welcome this further transcendence of arbitrary biology.”

Natasha Vita-More, executive director of Humanity+ and an active transhumanist since the early 1980s, says ideas that were foreign to non-transhumanists 20 years ago have been integrated into our regular vocabulary. These days, transhumanist-minded thinkers often reference concepts such as cryonics, mind uploading, and memory transfer, but without having to invoke transhumanism, she said.

Is it good that we don’t reference transhumanism as much anymore? “No, I don’t think so, but I also think it is part of the growth and evolution of social understanding in that we don’t need to focus on philosophy or movements over technological or scientific advances that are changing the world,” Vita-More told me. Moreover, “people today are far more knowledgeable about technology than they were 20 years ago and are more adept at considering the pros and cons of change rather than just the cons or potential bad effects,” she added.

PJ Manney, futurist consultant and author of the transhumanist-themed sci-fi Phoenix Horizon trilogy, says all the positive and optimistic visions of future humanity “are being tempered or outright dashed as we see humans taking new tools and doing what humans do: the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Indeed, we’re a lot more cynical and wary of technology than we were 20 years ago, and for good reasons. The Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Edward Snowden’s revelations about government spying, and the emergence of racist policing software were among an alarming batch of reproachable developments that demonstrated technology’s potential to turn sour.

We don’t talk about transhumanism that much any more “because so much of it is in the culture already,” Manney, who serves with me on the IEET board of directors, continued, but we “exist in profound future shock” and with “cultural and social stresses all around us.” Manney referenced the “retrograde SCOTUS reversals” and how U.S. states are removing human rights from acknowledged humans. She suggests that we secure human rights for humans before we “consider our silicon simulacrums.”

Nigel Cameron, an outspoken critic of transhumanism, said the futurist movement lost much of its appeal because the naive “framing of the enormous changes and advances under discussion” got less interesting as the distinct challenges of privacy, automation, and genetic manipulation (e.g. CRISPR) began to emerge. In the early 2000s, Cameron led a project on the ethics of emerging technologies at the Illinois Institute of Technology and is now a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Institute on Science, Society and Policy.

Sandberg, a longstanding transhumanist organiser and scholar, said the War on Terror and other emerging conflicts of the 2000s caused people to turn to “here-and-now geopolitics,” while climate change, the rise of China, and the 2008 financial crisis led to the pessimism seen during the 2010s. “Today we are having a serious problem with cynicism and pessimism paralyzing people from trying to fix and build things,” Sandberg said. “We need optimism!”

A lasting impression

Some of the transhumanist groups that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s still exist or evolved into new forms, and while a strong pro-transhumanist subculture remains, the larger public seems detached and largely disinterested. But that’s not to say that these groups, or the transhumanist movement in general, didn’t have an impact.

The various transhumanist movements “led to many interesting conversations, including some bringing together conservatives and progressives into a common critique,” said Cameron.

“I think the movements had mainly an impact as intellectual salons where blue-sky discussions made people find important issues they later dug into professionally,” said Sandberg. He pointed to Oxford University philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom, who “discovered the importance of existential risk for thinking about the long-term future,” which resulted in an entirely new research direction. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford are the direct results of Bostrom’s work. Sandberg also cited artificial intelligence theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky, who “refined thinking about AI that led to the AI safety community forming,” and also the transhumanist “cryptoanarchists” who “did the groundwork for the cryptocurrency world,” he added. Indeed, Vitalik Buterin, a co-founder of Ethereum, subscribes to transhumanist thinking, and his father, Dmitry, used to attend our meetings at the Toronto Transhumanist Association.

According to Manney, various transhumanist-driven efforts “inspired a vocabulary and creative impulse for many, including myself, to wrestle with the philosophical, technological and artistic implications” that naturally arise. Sci-fi grapples with transhumanism “now more than ever, whether people realise it or not,” she said. Fair point. Shows like Humans, Orphan Black, Westworld, Black Mirror, and Upload are jam-packed with transhumanist themes and issues, though the term itself is rarely — if ever — uttered. That said, these shows are mostly dystopian in nature, which suggests transhumanism is mostly seen through grey-coloured glasses. To be fair, super-uplifting portrayals of the future rarely work as Hollywood blockbusters or hit TV shows, but it’s worth pointing out that “San Junipero” is rated as among the best Black Mirror episodes for its positive portrayal of uploading as a means to escape death.

For the most part, however, transhuman-flavored technologies are understandably scary and relatively easy to cast in a negative light. Uncritical and starry-eyed transhumanists, of which there are many, weren’t of much help. Manney contends that transhumanism itself could use an upgrade. “The lack of consideration for consequences and follow-on effects, as well as the narcissistic demands common to transhumanism, have always been the downfall of the movement,” she told me. “Be careful what you wish for — you may get it.” Drone warfare, surveillance societies, deepfakes, and the potential for hackable bioprostheses and brain chips have made transhumanist ideas less interesting, according to Manney.

Like so many other marginal social movements, transhumanism “has had an indirect influence by widening the ‘Overton window’ [also known as the window of discourse] in policy and academic debates about human enhancement,” Hughes explained. “In the 2020s, transhumanism still has its critics, but it is better recognised as a legitimate intellectual position, providing some cover for more moderate bioliberals to argue for liberalized enhancement policies.”

Transhumanist Anders Sandberg circa 1998.  (Photo: Anders Sandberg)Transhumanist Anders Sandberg circa 1998. (Photo: Anders Sandberg)

Sandberg brought up a very good point: “Nothing gets older faster than future visions.” Indeed, many transhumanist ideas from the 1990s now look quaint, he said, pointing to wearable computers, smart drinks, imminent life extension, and “all that internet utopianism.” That said, Sandberg thinks the fundamental vision of transhumanism remains intact, saying the “human condition can be questioned and changed, and we are getting better at it.” These days, we talk more about CRISPR (a gene-editing tool that came into existence in 2012) than we do nanotechnology, but transhumanism “naturally upgrades itself as new possibilities and arguments show up,” he said.

Vita-More says the transhumanist vision “is still desirable and probably even more so because it has started to make sense for many.” Augmented humans are “everywhere,” she said, from “implants, smart devices that we use daily, human integration with computational systems that we use daily, to the hope that one day we will be able to slow down memory loss and store or back-up our neurological function in case of memory loss or diseases of dementia and Alzheimer’s.”

The observation that transhumanism “has started to make sense for many” is a good one. Take Neuralink, for example. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk based the startup on two very transhumanistic principles — that interfaces between the brain and computers are possible and that artificial superintelligence is coming. Musk, in his typical fashion, claims a philanthropic motive for wanting to build neural interface devices, as he believes boosted brains will protect us from malign machine intelligence (I personally think he’s wrong, but that’s another story).

For Cameron, transhumanism looks as frightening as ever, and he honed in on a notion he refers to as the “hollowing out of the human,” the idea that “all that matters in Homo sapiens can be uploaded as a paradigm for our desiderata.” In the past, Cameron has argued that “if machine intelligence is the model for human excellence and gets to enhance and take over, then we face a new feudalism, as control of finance and the power that goes with it will be at the core of technological human enhancement, and democracy…will be dead in the water.”

The future of transhumanist futurism

That being said, and despite these concerns, Manny believes there’s still a need for a transhumanist movement, but “one that addresses complexity and change for all humanity.”

Likewise, Vita-More says a transhumanist movement is still needed because it serves to facilitate change and support choices based on “personal needs” that look “beyond binary thinking,” while also supporting “diversity for good.”

“There is always a need for think tanks. While there are numerous futurist groups that contemplate the future, they are largely focused on energy, green energy, risks, and ethics,” said Vita-More. “Few of these groups are a reliable source of knowledge or information about the future of humanity other than a postmodernist stance, which is more focused on feminist studies, diversity, and cultural problems.” Vita-More currently serves as the executive director of Humanity+.

Hughes says that transhumanists fell into a number of political, technological, and even religious camps when they tried to define what they actually wanted. The IEET describes its brand of transhumanism as technoprogressivism — an “attempt to define and promote a social democratic vision of an enhanced future,” as Hughes defines it. As a concept, technoprogressivism provides a more tangible foundation for organising than transhumanism, says Hughes, so “I think we are well beyond the possibility of a ‘transhumanist’ movement and will now see the growth of a family of transhumanist-inspired or influenced movements that have more specific identities, including Mormon and other religious transhumanists, libertarians and technoprogressives, and the ongoing longevist, AI, and brain-machine subcultures.”

“I do think we need public intellectuals to be more serious about connecting the dots, as technologies continue to converge and offer bane and blessing to the human condition, and as our response tends to be uncritically enthusiastic or perhaps unenthusiastic,” said Cameron.

Sandberg says transhumanism is needed as a “counterpoint to the pervasive pessimism and cynicism of our culture,” and that to “want to save the future you need to both think it is going to be awesome enough to be worth saving, and that we have power to do something constructive.” To which he added: “Transhumanism also adds diversity — the future does not have to be like the present.”

As Manney aptly pointed out, it seems ludicrous to advocate for human enhancement at a time when abortion rights in the U.S. have been rescinded. The rise of anti-vaxxers during the covid-19 epidemic presents yet another complication, showing the extent to which the public willingly rejects a good thing. For me personally, the anti-vaxxer response to the pandemic was exceptionally discouraging, as I often reference vaccines to explain the transhumanist mindset — that we already embrace interventions that enhance our limited genetic endowments.

Given the current landscape, it’s my own opinion that self-described transhumanists should advocate and agitate for full bodily, cognitive, and reproductive autonomy, while also championing the merits of scientific discourse. Until these rights are established, it seems a bit premature to laud the benefits of improved memories or radically extended lifespans, as sad as it is to have to admit that.

These contemporary social issues aside, the transhuman future won’t wait for us to play catchup. These technologies will arrive, whether they emerge from university labs or corporate workshops. Many of these interventions will be of great benefit to humanity, but others could lead us down some seriously dark paths. Consequently, we must move the conversation forward.

Which reminds me of why I got involved in transhumanism in the first place — my desire to see the safe, sane, and accessible implementation of these transformative technologies. These goals remain worthwhile, regardless of any explicit mention of transhumanism. Thankfully, these conversations are happening, and we can thank the transhumanists for being the instigators, whether you subscribe to our ideas or not.

From the Gizmodo archives:

An Irreverent Guide to Transhumanism and The Singularity

U.S. Spy Agency Predicts a Very Transhuman Future by 2030

Most Americans Fear a Future of Designer Babies and Brain Chips

Transhumanist Tech Is a Boner Pill That Sets Up a Firewall Against Billy Joel

DARPA’s New Biotech Division Wants to Create a Transhuman Future